BARNEGAT, NJ – One thing has remained consistent since pandemic restrictions shut down in-person participation at Barnegat Township Committee meetings. The August gathering earlier this week was no exception. The debate continues concerning the Committee’s failure to allow live commentary during the Public Session Comment portion of the agenda.
Public meetings in the age of social distancing represent a challenge for many parts of government. Governor Phil Murphy sets the numbers when it comes to indoor meetings – once again, changed to new limitations. The local governing body was already steps ahead when it came to live-streaming meetings and providing cable access.
Both formats proved advantageous with one exception. Access is only one way. Members of the public cannot offer live commentary. They are required to submit questions and comments two hours in advance of committee meetings. The Township Clerk then reads them aloud during the Public Session Comment portion of the agenda.
Committee members are confronted with at least one comment a meeting regarding what some residents call a lack of access by local officials. Charles Cunliffe, a Democratic nominee for Township Committee, took it to a new level last month. After approaching the committee on numerous occasions, Cunliffe filed a lawsuit alleging local authorities deprived him of his right to address the committee as their meeting transpires.
Barnegat resident Fred Rubenstein not only disputed the merits of the lawsuit in a letter submitted for recitation during the Public Session Comment portion of the August meeting. Rubenstein chastised Cunliffe for the prospect of “substantial legal fees that could impact the tax rate by making it go higher.”
Township Attorney Christopher Dasti, Esq. has said local officials are in compliance with the Open Meetings Act and discussed the cost of defending the lawsuit.
“It has been referred to the township insurance carrier,” said Dasti. “The township will be obligated to pay its insurance premiums as it would with any lawsuit…It has been sent to the Joint Insurance Fund.”
According to Township Administrator Martin Lisella, the township’s insurance policy includes a deductible. The amount is calculated as a percentage of any award or settlement afforded to the claimant.
Township Clerk Michele Rivers also read comments received from former Barnegat Township Mayor and Committeeman Bill Neyenhouse. He suggested Dasti consult with the township’s zoning board and planning board attorneys. According to Neyenhouse, both “have advised the boards of the requirement to allow public comment during the meeting…by allowing the public to access meetings by computer, tablet or smartphone.”
“The planning and zoning board are different animals,” explained Dasti. “In a land use application, you have experts that are testifying ,,, you are hearing testimony for the first time. This is the reason that cross-examination has to take place – by members of the public and objector’s attorneys. You are hearing an application.”
Dasti said that land use boards could accept emails on general matters and agenda matters.
Barnegat officials previously indicated their intention to return to in-person meetings in September. The caveat offered by Lisella was reliant on instructions from the governor. Cunliffe submitted a comment asking the governing body to confirm its intentions for next month’s meeting.
“The Governor changes his mind every three days,” commented Committee Al Bille. “You can have a number of people indoors on one day, and it’s different the next. It’s hard to make that decision as of right now.”
The current Executive Order in place limits in-door gatherings to 25 percent of a room’s capacity to a maximum of 25 people. Lisella indicated this translates to 19 individuals, of which township officials total 12 on their own.
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